On heels of fugitive sweep, NJ plans hard line on witness intimidation
HAMILTON — More than 150 fugitives have been arrested in a nearly three-month sweep aimed at capturing people accused of violent crimes and drug distribution, state law-enforcement officials announced Wednesday.
The apprehended fugitives included three wanted on murder charges.
Attorney General Christopher Porrino also announced a new initiative designed to prevent victim and witness intimidation, rooted in part in the bail reforms that took effect this month that allow people to be held without bail if they’re deemed a public safety threat.
“It is – witness intimidation and tampering – is pervasive, particularly in our urban centers, where cooperators and witnesses are often targeted,” Porrino said.
“It hampers law enforcement in its ability to solve and prosecute violent crimes, and it just breeds more violence,” he said.
Porrino issued a directive requiring:
- Prosecutors and police to be aggressive in charging people with witness intimidation and at sentencing. Such charges can often lead to sentences served consecutively, not concurrently, keeping convicts in prison longer, Porrino said.
- Prosecutors to take a new course being developed by the Division of Criminal Justice about ways defendants use social media in witness intimidation.
- Police to notify prosecutors if they learn about possible harm or intimidation, so prosecutors can then seek pretrial detention or electronic monitoring.
- Prosecutors to notify police in advance if discovery is being shared with criminal-defense attorneys that could identify witnesses, and to use anonymous references in court pleadings rather than actual initials of witnesses.
The directive also encourages county prosecutors to use criminal forfeiture funds to pay for witness relocation, if that’s necessary.
“We are going to take a hard line on witness intimidation in New Jersey,” Porrino said.
Porrino said that of the 29 fugitives arrested since Jan. 1, when bail reforms took effect that in part permit some defendants to be detained without bail, 22 are currently still in custody.
“I can say that overall, we’re pleased with that outcome,” Porrino said. “Those numbers for us indicate early on in the process that that side of bail reform is working.”
The more than 150 fugitives include five picked up Wednesday morning, including two gang members. Porrino said that in the course of the 150-plus arrests, authorities have seized 11 firearms, including two assault weapons, as well as 631 decks of heroin and 60 vials of crack cocaine.
The investigations also led to information that’s now being used to investigate drug rings in other parts of the state, Porrino said.
“Narcotics trafficking and violence are inextricably linked and as addiction in our state has grown, so has the challenge of combating violence in our urban centers. And our message today is that we will work 24/7 to continue to do our best to stem the tide of this drug activity and violent behavior in the state,” Porrino said.
Porrino said there are more fugitives to chase than law enforcement to chase them, so the focus was narrowed to violent individuals and those alleged to be drug dealers and traffickers.
“Every one has risk. Warrant sweeps that result in the apprehension of what I’ll call the low-hanging fruit in instances like this, the juice just isn’t worth the squeeze,” Porrino said. “Unless you’re focused on the most violent, most dangerous individuals, sending law enforcement out in the field just to make arrests for the sake of making arrests is not something we’re interested in doing.”